The Florida Panther (Puma concolor coyri) is a subspecies of Puma concolor commonly known as mountain lion, cougar, or panther. The Florida panther is a large, carnivorous member of the Felidae family that includes many big cat species. Historically, the subspecies was prevalent throughout the Southeastern United States with populations ranging through Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina (F&W, 2018). By 2008, the Florida Panther has been reduced to a miniscule population of only approximately 100 breeding Puma concolor coyri that exist solely in the southern Caloosahatche River region (Recovery Plan 2008). This population decline is primarily the result of habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation due to human activities such as farming practices and urbanization. The data clearly indicates a drastic reduction in both range and population of the Florida Panther and given the intrinsic vulnerabilities of this species, it was clear that without intervention the extant population would dwindle eventually resulting in the extinction of the subspecies. For this reason, under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service devised a recovery plan to limit negative human impacts on the Florida Panther and return the population to a viable size and range.
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The U.S. Endangered Species Act classifies a species as “endangered” when it is at risk of extinction within the foreseeable future throughout all or significant portions of its range. There are several metrics, both quantitative and qualitative, that are used to identify a threatened or endangered species. A series of intrinsic vulnerabilities have been identified and are utilized to asses the risk of extinction of a species. Low genetic diversity is a primary indicator for an at-risk species. Genetic variation is essential for a population to adapt to its environment, resist predators, and avoid catastrophic disease. The “Conservation Rule of Thumb” maintains that in order to maintain long term evolutionary potential a population must consists of 500 or more breeding individuals (Lecture 18). This subspecies of panther contains a population of less than 100 individuals breeding in isolation (Recovery Plan 2008). Therefore, Puma concolor coyri fails to meet the criteria for a long term genetically viable population. Another intrinsic vulnerability is low reproductive output. It is significant to note that the Florida Panther exhibits the K-type reproductive strategy. K-type reproduction involves fewer offspring and greater investment into offspring care which means it is essential that the offspring have a high chance of surviving into adulthood (Lecture 18). Because of human impacts this survival chance has greatly diminished which has led to the rapid population decline of panthers. Finally, it has been shown that large body size is a marker of risk. Mega-fauna, like the Florida Panther, require greater energy consumption, larger habitats, and are more often the targets of human hunting practices. These biological rationales have warranted the classification of “Endangered” to Puma concolor coyri under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The IUCN classifies the Panther as a species of “Least Concern” (Nielsen, 2018). This discrepancy exists because the IUCN fails to recognize the “Puma concolor coyri” as a subspecies but rather considers the broader definition, “Puma concolor”. This broadened species definition includes the panthers in Western, Central, and South America where viable population exists and thrive in much larger numbers than the Florida population. Research more narrow in scope on the specific “coyri” subspecies would be necessary to achieve a similar classification.
Habitat change is far and away the greatest threat to the Florida Panther. The panthers depend on a “critical habitat” with specific features that are essential to the survival of the species. These habitat changes have had such a significant impact on the Florida Panther because as a large, carnivorous species, they require huge, contiguous swaths of suitable habitat to meet their energetic needs. The size of their habitats and density of the flora that occupy the habitats is vital to the success of the panthers. The primary prey of the Florida Panther includes white-tailed deer, wild pig, raccoon, birds, and armadillo (F&W, 2018). Puma concolor coyri, similar to other species of Panther, are ambush hunters and require habitats that not only support substantial population of their prey, but also provide adequate cover to discretely approach prey. The 3 primary forms of habitat change are loss, fragmentation, and reduction. Habitat loss, the removal of essential habitat area, and habitat fragmentation, the division of remaining habitat into smaller factions, are a direct result of human expansion. Massive areas of Puma concolor coyri habitat has been destroyed and fragmented by farming practices such as clear cutting, land development, and fence building, and urbanization practices such as road building. Reports indicate that the Florida Panther has been limited to 5% of its historical range (Recovery Plan 2008). The habitat loss decreases population and promotes genetic bottlenecking and loss of genetic diversity. Additionally, habitat fragmentation can split the species into several sub-populations. Lack of gene flow between these sub-populations exacerbates the problems associated with lack of genetic diversity. Habitat degradation, the reduction of quality of habitat elements, is also a pressing problem for the Florida Panther. The habitat of Puma concolor coyri is being degraded by a reduction in the availability and concentration of prey. This is primarily due to the presence of an invasive species, the Burmese Python. These pythons have spread rapidly and devastated the populations of raccoons, armadillos, and birds which the Florida Panther relies on as a supplementary food source (Dell’Amore, 2012). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan for the Florida Panther has outlined measures for combatting decreasing population size and promoting genetic diversity within the species. One strategy states, “Maintain, restore, and expand the Florida panther population and its habitat in south Florida and, if feasible, expand the known occurrence of Florida panthers north of the Caloosahatchee River to maximize the probability of the long-term persistence of this metapopulation.” (Recovery Plan 2008). This includes limiting habitat loss through conservation policy and restoring already destroyed habitat to promote range expansion. Additionally, efforts to expand population and diversity have been made by attempting to introduce the closely related Texas Puma into this region. Another strategy states, “Facilitate panther conservation and recovery through public awareness and education” (Recovery Plan 2008). This involves informing the public on avoidance of practices that harm the panthers. The Burmese Python was an invasive species brought to this habitat by humans and could have been prevented. Additionally, a significant number of panthers (24 in 2014 alone) are killed by cars that utilize the roads that fragment Puma concolor coyri habitat (DofW, 2018). While many of these roads are essential and can’t be removed, educating the public on safe practices to avoid hitting the panthers could prove beneficial. Overall, habitat maintenance and restoration could alleviate the problems posed by habitat loss and fragmentation, and public education could benefit the issues associated with habitat degradation.
When an endangered population, such as the Florida Panthers, suffers a great loss of genetic diversity there are less heterozygous individuals and inbreeding depression begins to occur. Heterozygous individuals generally have better overall fitness and are more resistant to disease and parasites so less of these individuals jeopardizes the overall success of the population (Lecture 2). When a population becomes so small, in the case of Puma concolor coyri, inbreeding depression begins to occur where the individuals begin to mate with their close relatives. Inbred individuals have significantly lower survival rates and reproductive effects. Florida panther inbreeding has caused a host of health problems including atrial septal defects, cryptorchidism, low sperm count, reduced immune response, heavy parasite load, and the kinked tail defect (Lecture 6). These survival and reproductive defects only lead to further decreases in population. The only solution to this problem is to expand habitat and population and in turn increase genetic diversity. The strategies listed above would accomplish this feat and in addition, it would be beneficial if there were several sub-populations that would interbreed and promote gene flow. I would also suggest implementing a captive breeding program. In this controlled setting it can be ensured that closely related individuals do not mate and would promote the conception of non-inbred and possibly heterozygous individuals.
In conclusion, with Puma concolor coyri range and population diminishing, it is essential that drastic steps be taken to promote conservation of this subspecies. The Florida Panther Recovery plan indicates that the panther could be delisted if “three viable, self-sustaining populations of at least 240 have been established” and “sufficient habitat quality, quantity, and spatial configuration is retained/protected” (Recovery Plan 2008). With the intrinsic vulnerabilities present in the subspecies, aggressive habitat maintenance and public awareness is absolutely necessary to expand the population and genetic diversity. Early attempts to restore the species have indicated success as new reports show as many as 230 breeding panthers today, as opposed to the 100 panthers present at the time the recovery plan was instituted (F&W, 2008).
- Defenders of Wildlife. “Florida Panther”. D of W. Updated 2018. Accessed November 21st 2018.
2. Dell’Amore, Christine. “Pythons Eating Through Everglades Mammals at “Astonishing” Rate?”. National Geographic. January 20th, 2012. Accessed November 21st 2018.
- Nielsen, C. “Puma: Puma concolor”. IUCN. 2015. Accessed November 21st 2018.
- U.S. F&WS. “Florida Panther”. Updated October 5th 2018. Accessed November 21st 2018. https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/mammals/florida-panther/
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